Politics nearly scuppered deal to end strike

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br magara Independent Newspapers Lonmin chief Ben Magara. Photo: Supplied

Forty-eight hours after talks to end South Africa’s longest mining strike hit a brick wall when the minister of mineral resources suddenly pulled out, a bishop and an anti-establishment corporate lawyer engineered a deal at a secret meeting in a ritzy hotel.

The events, revealed in interviews with key players in the five-month platinum strike, exposed the impotence of the bargaining structures that have underpinned labour relations since apartheid ended in 1994.

They also cast a shadow over the ruling ANC, which admonished the minister for inviting the lawyer to the talks after he had left the ANC to be elected to Parliament for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

The chastened minister then withdrew from the negotiations, almost scuppering an agreement between the three biggest platinum firms and the striking Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which has informal ties to the leftist EFF.

“They did not tell me how to withdraw,” Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi said. “They just told me: ‘We think you have done enough. We want you to go slow on this’.”

Analysts say the ANC was keener to avoid conceding political points than to resolve the worst strike in the 130-year history of the mines because the ruling party’s share of the vote is being whittled down 20 years into democracy and a key political ally, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), is losing ground to Amcu.

br joseph Amcu boss Joseph Mathunjwa. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko Reuters

The ANC wanted to end the strike in a way that did not mean the NUM bleeding more members to Amcu, William Gumede, the head of the Democracy Works Foundation think tank, said. “We’re getting into a self-preservation period in the politics of the ANC alliance which could destabilise sections of the labour market and polarise the country.”

The strike claimed five lives and dragged the economy to the brink of recession, but the chief dispute resolution agency, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), said it was largely toothless in the face of politically tinged union militancy.

Nerine Kahn, the director of the CCMA, said other countries allowed agencies such as hers to force parties to stop striking for a period to allow for mediation. “We don’t have that right.”

After countless rounds of failed talks, many thought only divine intervention would end the stand-off between Amcu’s 70 000 striking members and Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum (Implats) and Lonmin.

Those at the key meeting in Johannesburg’s Palazzo Montecasino Hotel on June 11 shared that view. They included the Anglican Bishop of Pretoria, Jo Seoka, who had intervened in platinum belt unrest after the police killing in 2012 of 34 wildcat Amcu strikers at Lonmin’s Marikana mine, the bloodiest security incident since 1994.

Alongside him was Dali Mpofu, a prominent but controversial lawyer who had taken up the cause of the slain Marikana miners, and Joseph Mathunjwa, Amcu’s president.

Opposite the trio, dubbed the Three Musketeers since the Marikana killings, was Ben Magara, the chief executive of London-listed Lonmin and one of the few black chief executives in the local mining sector.

“We started the meetings with prayers and we closed them with prayers because we felt we needed a bit of extraordinary assistance,” one person involved, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

As the head of the worst-hit platinum firm – analysts said Lonmin was only a few months from running out of money – Magara had the most to gain from pursuing talks to end the strike. But his background was also crucial to overcoming bad blood between Amcu, the platinum producers and the ANC.

In contrast to Chris Griffith and Terence Goodlace, his white counterparts at Amplats and Implats, respectively, Magara started his career underground, working his way up through the ranks and into the boardroom.

“Ben has worked in the mines,” one person involved in the final negotiations said. “His view and understanding of the suffering is different from Griffith’s because he has lived it. Coming from a black community in Zimbabwe, he has some feel for the suffering.”

The Montecasino meeting produced an “in principle” deal to increase basic wages by R1 000 a month, a hike that was equivalent to nearly 20 percent for most workers.

Even though Mathunjwa had not signed it, the three firms announced it the next day just as the Amcu boss was presenting it to workers at mass rallies at platinum mines near Rustenburg.

The mood on the platinum belt was ecstatic as shop stewards stepped up to the microphone to chant “Sign, Mathunjwa! Sign!”, eliciting roars of approval from miners who had not seen a pay cheque in nearly half a year. The jubilation was in contrast to three days earlier when the sudden absence of mediation from Ramatlhodi stymied progress.

Sworn in on May 26, Ramatlhodi, an advocate with no mining experience, won President Jacob Zuma’s approval to do what it took to end the strike.

Besides Amcu, the companies and a posse of government officials, Ramatlhodi also dragged in Seoka and Mpofu – two of the few non-Amcu people whom Mathunjwa trusted. Under his ad hoc auspices, the talks made progress.

Amcu refused to drop its totemic demand of a “living wage” of R12 500 a month basic pay. But the two sides gradually brought their target dates for progressive implementation of the goal – equivalent to a 150 percent rise if taken in one year – together until they had a broad deal, Ramatlhodi said.

On June 6, after a week of talks, the only outstanding issue was a R400 a month “living out allowance” for workers opting out of company accommodation, he said. “If Amcu had given that up, they would have had a deal that Friday.”

Then Ramatlhodi dropped his bombshell.

At a hastily convened Saturday morning news conference on the sidelines of a meeting of the ANC top brass, the minister said he was pulling out of the talks to avoid setting the precedent of government being the mediator of last resort.

The decision stunned negotiators, with one person at the heart of the talks dismissing his reasoning as “very flimsy”.

The next day, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe revealed more: the minister had been “cautioned” about the inclusion of Mpofu, recently sworn in as an EFF MP.

With Zuma missing the ANC meeting due to illness, Ramatlhodi said he lacked the one big hitter who could fight his corner, and felt obliged to pull out.

When negotiations resumed on June 9, the trust was gone and the mood was grim. When a CCMA attempt to kickstart the talks went nowhere, the commission said Ramatlhodi had muddied the waters. It has also demanded more institutional teeth in the face of growing union militancy.

As night fell, Mathunjwa told reporters that the talks had deadlocked once again.

Magara was particularly upset after coming so close to a deal. Sensing his weakness, Seoka and Mpofu arranged to see him at breakfast the next day. After more meetings in hotels, Mpofu and Seoka finally managed to get Mathunjwa to agree to see Magara in person.

“They needed to get Magara and Mathunjwa in the same room – that’s when we got them,” another source said.

When he arrived, the bishop, the lawyer and the Lonmin boss had already signed the deal. Mathunjwa never inked it, but his handshake was enough to convince Magara, a person involved said. “There was huge relief.” – Reuters


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